Synopses & Reviews
In post-Reformation Poland--the largest state in Europe and home to the largest Jewish population in the world--the Catholic Church suffered profound anxiety about its power after the Protestant threat. Magda Teter reveals how criminal law became a key tool in the manipulation of the meaning of the sacred and in the effort to legitimize Church authority. The mishandling of sacred symbols was transformed from a sin that could be absolved into a crime that resulted in harsh sentences of mutilation, hanging, decapitation, and, principally, burning at the stake.
Teter casts new light on the most infamous type of sacrilege, the accusation against Jews for desecrating the eucharistic wafer. These sacrilege trials were part of a broader struggle over the meaning of the sacred and of sacred space at a time of religious and political uncertainty, with the eucharist at its center. But host desecration--defined in the law as sacrilege--went beyond anti-Jewish hatred to reflect Catholic-Protestant conflict, changing conditions of ecclesiastic authority and jurisdiction, and competition in the economic marketplace.
Recounting dramatic stories of torture, trial, and punishment, this is the first book to consider the sacrilege accusations of the early modern period within the broader context of politics and common crime. Teter draws on previously unexamined trial records to bring out the real-life relationships among Catholics, Jews, and Protestants and challenges the commonly held view that following the Reformation, Poland was a "state without stakes"--uniquely a country without religious persecution.
Photo by Shawn Hill --William Deverell, Director, Huntington
Photo by Shawn HillThis magnificent book innovatively frames accusations of host desecration by Jews within the context of Protestant-Catholic polemics. Teter places religion and conflict at the center of her narrative as she describes how many people were burned alive, tortured, and imprisoned for crimes of sacrilege. Her startling new arguments demolish misconceptions of 'a state without stakes.' Sinners on Trial will quickly become required reading in Polish history, Jewish history, Reformation studies, and religious studies in general. --Brian Porter-Szűcs
Teter's brilliant book shows how accusations of host desecration leveled against the Jews in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Poland took place against the backdrop of conflicts between church and state, king and nobility, and Catholics and Protestants. While these accusations diminished markedly in Western Europe after the Reformation, in Poland, it was precisely the Reformation and the consequent Counter-Reformation that led to a host of new cases. --David Biale, University of California, Davis
Teter's mastery as scholar and story teller in this compelling book is unsurpassed. She navigates the tensions that beset early modern Polish society with meticulous attention to new archival sources and graceful narrative style. The conflicts along the ever-shifting boundaries between sacred and profane, pious and criminal, Jew and Christian, Catholic and Protestant sometimes erupted with devastating consequences. --Elisheva Carlebach, Columbia University
Criminal law became a key tool in the effort to legitimize Church authority in post-Reformation Poland. Recounting dramatic stories of torture, trial, and punishment involving Christians and Jews, this is the first book to consider the sacrilege accusations of the early modern period within the broader context of politics and common crime.
About the Author
Magda Teter is Professor of History and Jeremy Zwelling Professor of Jewish Studies at Wesleyan University.